America - Front
America - Back
By Lee Mehr 13th Feb 2023 | 1,780 views
One of the industry’s most intriguing resurgences is the horror scene. Although you certainly see that in the AAA space, what with Callisto Protocol, Dead Space, and others releasing down the pipeline, that doesn’t hold a candle to the panoply of indie titles made on shoe-string budgets. It’s akin to the Blumhouse or A24 movie production churn, only less centralized by comparison. Chasing Static is one of those drops in the bucket that initially released for PC and has now finally arrived across major consoles. This unsettling journey across North Wales is more widely available, but is it actually worth the trip?
Chris Selwood’s father recently died and now he’s left finalizing all the affairs. Given their emotional distance and his dad’s obsession with work, the only crucial item he’s given is his father’s diary. While navigating a stormy night on the road, he eventually respites at a roadside café. That’s quickly cut off after a paranormal entity attacks and kidnaps an innocent waitress. Someone calls him and makes only one demand: “don’t go into the woods.” The line suddenly goes dead.
It’s not a groundbreaking setup, but solid in execution. There’s something about recent indie horror titles gluing players inside a vehicle that works as a great pacing mechanism. Micro-interactions like fiddling with the gear-shift or drinking coffee in total isolation add just enough interactivity to temporarily keep you occupied. Once at the café, Static’s design showcases two main interactive elements: occasional dialogue choices and puzzle-solving. By keeping the presentiment of dread so close to the chest early on, the inciting action immediately captures attention.
As stories tend to go, those woods you were warned about hold a few unsettling secrets regarding a government program studying some strange phenomenon. A woman’s voice over the radio tells you to actuate three special gadgets across this open world and to take their Frequency Displacement Monitoring Device. From here, the design template is basically a first-person adventure while sporadically using this new doohickey to magically witness the grisly demise of a research group. When within earshot of these special areas, the colorized atmosphere shifts to a fuzzy monochromatic one, as though you’re glimpsing past events from behind an old-timey TV set.
All of these elements perfectly mesh with the visual pastiche of PS1-era horror games too. The low-poly count lends just enough abstraction to be quietly horrified by the gruesome outcomes, and it’s complimented by the fun retro technology powering everything: big CRT monitors, bulky speakers, old video tapes powering silly whirling devices, and so on. It’s capturing that cheesy horror idea of something being “haunted” within certain radio frequencies and I can’t help but dig that concept. Contrasting that low-fi look is the higher production of its sound design and Sonic Kitchen’s ambient score. Stylistically speaking, that could be considered a sour spot since Headware Games can’t obviously match the sound work of bigger studios; although it’s not mediocre either, perhaps taking the Paratopic route of intentional griminess would’ve more properly served the setting.
Stepping away from more stylistic critiques, Static’s design doesn’t quite capture all the potential creativity of its setting.
The non-linear approach helps players mentally map out every significant locale, but how they segue with one another leads to obnoxious backtracking. Whenever you bump into a new hurdle, the majority of required items are in the opposite direction. It’s not a problem to spread out puzzle items, of course, until it feels like you’re reflexively peering through the design curtain. Then the experience of traversing from point A to B becomes more… routine. Although it’s already a condensed world (1.5-2 hours to finish), slightly paring back the item-hunting and reconfiguring the world to accommodate this would’ve kept events in sharper focus.
Outside of design tweaks, there’s plenty of room to be more creative with these concepts too. The tempo of item-collecting, sparse dialogue choices, and watching grainy stop-motion cut scenes adequately realizes its core concept. While also admirable in restraining its jump scares, there’s not really anything supplanting them either. The ambiance begins to fizzle as the scarier elements (like floating green lights patrolling abandoned streets) lose their bite with some player experimentation. That’s not to dismiss its better ideas either, like the analog means of fast-traveling, but it doesn’t culminate into something grander.
To condense this wall of waffle: imagine going to a Michelin 2-star restaurant and only enjoying a few appetizers. You may appreciate those creative sides, but you never tried a main course.
Static’s storytelling is in a similar vein, but the main course given is somewhat disappointing. The succinct opening that’s subtly setting up Chris’ past is essentially a non-factor until the finale. Similar to walking sims like Gone Home, greater emphasis is placed on being a means of examining past events. But being an archivist in this context doesn’t work because the personal avenues explored towards the end weren’t built up. It’s a case of two decently-acted story threads never properly intersecting with one another, leaving it somewhat confused.
And though I’m more invested in the experience itself, I’d feel irresponsible not mentioning the rather steep $14.99 price point. Of course, there are little replayable nuggets like achievements, collectibles, and various endings, but that’s not going to eat up much more time if you’ve been diligent in uncovering stuff beforehand. Hell, I’d still be content if a more ephemeral experience led to more moving and intense results, but that’s not quite the case here either.
All said, Headware Games’ latest is another retro-horror title I’m more inclined to respect at a distance than thoroughly recommend. Like Paratopic, Glitchhikers, and a glut of other contemporaries capturing this tantalizing vibe on limited budgets, it’s a sub-genre I hope continues long into the future. Chasing Static is a more interesting example, especially in how some of its design quirks marry with the aesthetic, while still missing a crucial “x quality” in its design and storytelling. But for horror fans, perhaps there’s still enough to appreciate in spite of the fuzzy picture.
Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee's obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.